Eleven Times Elisa

This selection is part of Nonbinary Review Issue #14: The Tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Get NonBinary Review #14 from the Zoetic Press website. 

Since she and her brothers were left (see neglect) to the care of a hateful, envious stepmother (see abuse), Elisa has stepped into the realm of the unspeakable (a quality of experience incompatible with life, thus non expressible).

Survival is dependent on her capacity of neither speaking nor laughing (one word, one giggle, and all will be lost). She needs to give up her mouth.

Not unheard of. It has happened to girls throughout history, has it? Give up their tongue. Cut it, or else sew it to the palate. Seal their lips, wherever located.

Not unheard of.


Sewing. She has hands. Hands are powerful. So is the mind when connected to a pair of hands, even in absence of a mouth/tongue. Without needle or thread, Elisa needs to sew a shirt of nettles for each of her brothers.

Think of nettles against her palms—the sting suggests a flayed body’s vulnerability. Clearly, she needs sewing her brothers’ skin—and her own simultaneously. A membrane, a barrier, a form of defense, apt to shield a child from adult envy and meanness. It was not built in proper time, because mothering didn’t happen—Elisa and company were orphaned. She’ll mother her brothers, then, secrete their skin cells from her own. Bleed her substance into theirs.


Right now, Elisa’s siblings have a double identity. Swans during the day, at night they depose their feathers and become human. Clandestine. Irregular aliens—the shirts will give them papers, provide them with a lawful status.

Of course there is a catch. The apparel needs to be ready on a deadline. She’s got one year per shirt. Does it mean the girl is sewing time? Clearly. She is sewing days, weeks, months, reconnecting past, present, future. Mending whatever loss has torn, repairing a fractured cycle. She isn’t scared of the task, but she can’t waste a minute, she can’t postpone.

She needs to be tireless. Listen up: resistance, full focus, ability to ignore all kind of distraction or superfluity. Well, Elisa is anorexic. No kidding.


Author Cristina Campo defines beauty as “silence, duration, wait.” The same triad defines art. Besides being a mother, Eli is an artist, of course.

Her task also needs secrecy, invisibility. It’s the trick of alchemy, applicable to anything in need of metamorphosis. The athanor can’t be opened. The seed germinates under the soil’s surface. Even a rising loaf, a cake in the oven, asks for privacy. It will flop under curious eyes.

Nettles have to be gathered at night, in the place where they grow thicker—the graveyard. Is she meddling with tombs, corpses, bones? That’s calling for trouble. But she has lost her mother… to elaborate grief, to mourn, literally means to go back and recover lingering pieces of self, still attached to the dead. Also sever chunks of the dead, still glued to her body and soul, bury them at last. She needs to detach, de-fuse, arrange, store. Only thus she can put ghosts to sleep, stop them from eating the living, restore integrity.


Here’s another catch. To do what must be done, the girl has to risk her life. If she’s found in the graveyard at night, messing with herbs, she will be called a witch.

And she is caught, and she can’t justify herself, because she can’t speak. If she doesn’t talk she is lost. If she talks all is lost. Her truth can’t be unfolded until the shirts are. If she gets done, though, besides saving her brothers she’ll be rescued as well. Individual versus collective, oh dear… She’s a seamstress. She will hold it together, hold tight. She will not unloop herself.

In her prison cell Elisa keeps her mouth shut. She keeps sewing. Hope doesn’t give up as long as her hands are moving. She doesn’t betray her secret, witch or not. Eli is Joan of Arc, in case you still doubted it.


The execution is scheduled for the very day when delivery must occur. About that? But the sleeve of the youngest brother’s shirt isn’t freaking finished. Smallest shirt, smallest sleeve. The hard work has tapered down, gotten thinner and thinner. Elisa is anorexic, we said.

Didn’t say suicidal. She never wanted to die. Her goal wasn’t annihilation, folks, it was life. LIFE. Then the hell with perfection—it wasn’t the deal. Not perfection, but transformation. It is done, give or take a cuff. A small one.


Eli throws the eleven shirts in the air from the pyre where she has been enthroned. The green coats fall on a flock of swans, which immediately land—the weight anchoring them. Gravity makes them human.

On that very second, she screams. Or she is screamed. Her mouth has come back. Her lungs have started functioning. It’s the scream of a baby at the end of the uterine channel, when she first meets with oxygen. She was meant to deliver the boys, but she is actually born.

I am innocent. I had a reason for doing what I did. I had a reason for breaking the law. I am not crazy, not evil, not ill. All right, unchain her. Let her come down. She must be dead tired. And she isn’t a child anymore, admitted she ever was. She has gotten her period. She could marry and have kids of her own. Admitted she’d want to.


Now, Elisa, about that unfinished sleeve. What did your youngest bro say?

It’s called memory, she answers. It’s called a memento. Or it’s called non-conformity. Its called diversity. It is called “a beautiful scar.”

Then, tell you the truth—if you haven’t figured it out—the eleventh brother is a sister. It is me.

Toti O’Brien’s work has most recently appeared in Masque & Spectacle, Feminine Inquiry, Indiana Voices, and Italian Americana.